Social Mobilization Meet Sandra, a mother recently divorced from her abusive middle-class husband.
Her previous life had been comfortable; she now lives day-to-day with her children, working as a secretary while attending college courses in her little spare time, all while attending to her home and family. She finally ends up attaining her degree, yet can still find no job paying higher than her secretarial job, so she takes on a second job as a grocery checkout person, still barely making ends meet for her family. As described in Ch. 9 of the Giddens text, this woman had obviously worked very hard to attempt to restore her life back to her previous pre-divorce middle-class state. She says, “You try to do the responsible thing, and you’re penalized, because the system we have right now doesn’t provide you with a way to make it.” (p.
169) However, she learned the hard way that class is not quite as easy to transcend in this so-called “land of opportunity.” The United States is the most highly stratified society of the industrialized world. Class distinctions operate in virtually every aspect of our lives, determining the nature of our work, the quality of our schooling, and the health and safety of our loved ones. Yet, remarkably, we, as a nation retain illusions about living in the capitalist “land of opportunity”, where any average Joe can make his million if he works hard enough. The reality of the our situation is that the US is not as “open” as we think it may be, meaning that social mobility, or the movement between classes, is not nearly as easy as we may believe. This is due to the fact that many social issues, such as gender, racial, and economic class, serve as barriers that obstruct the path of one’s social mobility. Despite our own personal efforts and talents, mobility in our society is primarily based on one’s status, and overcoming the stereotypes that accompany one’s status makes mobility extremely hard.
Before examining how mobility is suppressed within society, it is important to look at what types exist in our industrialized nation. Usually the amount of mobility in a society is a major indicator of its openness. India, for example, is a very closed society, running on a caste system that dictates one’s status in life and prohibits any movement between classes. The US has mostly seen structural mobility, which is advancement opportunity made possible by an increase in better-paid occupations at the expense of lower-wage occupations. Since WWII, there has been a large increase in high-paying managerial and executive positions, as well as blue-collar working class jobs. Within this structural mobility, there is upper and downward mobility that can allow a person to either rise or fall in economic class.
However, many other elements come into play, making advancements extremely difficult, and class lines deeply imbedded. In our society, as well as every other industrialized nation, mobility is based on the idea that the poor are the lowest of the social strata, and that all mobility continues upwards from that point. Due to this concept, society makes progress for the lower classes particularly difficult, because they guarantee the status of those who are not poor. Herbert Gans examines this concept in his piece, “The Positive Functions of Poverty”.
He gives numerous examples of how the poor see no mobility because they are kept down to benefit the upper classes. Gans also observes that the poor actually contribute to the upper mobility of the non-poor. In fact, many are able to make money off of the poor for their own social gain by providing them with retail, entertainment, gambling, housing, and narcotics. (Gans, p.25) Due to meager education and the stereotypes of being incapable and lazy, the poor enable others to obtain the better jobs.
These stereotypes begin while still in school, as seen in William Chambliss’s piece, “Saints and Roughnecks.” The Saints were a group of upper class teenage boys, just as delinquent as their lower class counterparts, the Roughnecks. However, due to “selective perception and labeling”, the Roughnecks were targeted as the “bad kids who didn’t want to make something of themselves”, while the Saints were seen as leaders of their peers, just out for a good time. These labels can be psychologically detrimental to one’s sense of self, and can actually cause more oppression of the poor by their own selves, who feel trapped in their position. The poor do not hold enough power to correct the stereotypes that have been placed on them, and therefore continue to be exploited unjustly so that others may rise above them. Another group that as a whole remains socially immobile are those that constitute half of the population; these are the women of our society. Social mobility also plays along gender lines, as well as class, making the plight of a poor woman extremely difficult, as seen in the example of Sandra, the working single mother.
Despite the large amount of progress made by women in the workforce, particularly upper class women, men are still intimidated by women in rising social positions. For example, men and women claim to agree that women should be given equal work opportunity, but the majority of both agreed that it would be better if women could just stay at home to raise children. Those who do work, at jobs that pay them 74 cents to the man’s dollar, must come home to put in a “second shift” as a homemaker as well. Being expected to be the sole caretaker for a family, this is what also causes downward mobility for women as well.
Women with promising careers often abandon them after giving birth to children, and after a long period of absence, they do not find the same opportunities that they once had. In addition to being a poor woman, social mobility places even more obstacles in front of a poor minority woman, or any minority, for that matter. In our unequal stratification, race plays an important role in structure as well. Even within our society, different ethnic groups have different amounts of mobility. The black middle class, for example, is much smaller than the white middle class, based on ratio of population, and one out of every two black children is poor.
In “Imagine a Country”, Holly Sklar describes many of the unfair disadvantages that face minorities as they try to advance in our internally racist society. “Blacks are turned down for mortgages at twice the rate of whites with similar incomes. Blacks are rejected more often than whites when they apply for benefits under social security disability programs” (Sklar, p. 218) Racism is embedded within our society, and it makes the mobilization of minority groups extremely difficult, despite the talents and abilities they may have.
Class inequality is persistent in our society, and keeps many of the oppressed from receiving equal opportunities for social mobility. Studies have shown that American society tends to be even more unequal than most other Western societies. Mobility tends to be easier for those that fit the social accepted standard; ie. the educated white middle class man, but those that don’t fit this standard often feel that there is no escape from their lower positions. Until we decide to start rewarding people for their effort and ability, people like Sandra will continue to be oppressed due solely to their status.
This surely does not sound like “the land of opportunity” to me. Unless the “average Joe” is of the privileged social standard, he surely will find it nearly impossible to make his million in this country.